teaching the sociology of sex to an intro soc class
One of the problems in teaching social theory a lot is that you constantly deal with people who hate the class. For most sociology majors, theory is irrelevant intellectual history that they don’t understand anyway. I still enjoy teaching theory, but I wanted a class that would directly appeal to students.
I requested a section of social problems and decided to make a course about life course. But I didn’t advertise it as life course. Instead, it is called “MONEY SEX HEALTH HAPPINESS.” Yes – it is all caps in the course schedule! The way the course is built is that we have four week modules dealing with each of these issues. Each lecture uses research in a specific area to teach a social science lesson (e.g., the debate over human capital and signalling is taught as both an explanation of income but also alternative explanations).
The sections on sex and happiness are new to me. Although I am familiar with each area, I had never taught on health or happiness research. For the sex section, I wasn’t interested in sexual identity, which lots of classes cover. I was much more interested in practice. I wanted to focus on behavior that was tangible. Thus, I drew heavily from Laumann et al’s classic The Social Organization of Sexuality, which remains the definitive modern work on American sexual behavior. I also had a week on social change and I used gay marriage politics as an example.
This is a lecture class (70+ students) so it is hard for me judge exactly how people received the material. For example, we had a discussion of Fifty Shades of Grey. How typical is the behavior depicted in that film? Answer: as one student said, the average American is only into “two or three shades of grey.” Some students were put off by the big finding that people remain sexually active late into their lives. No one wants to know what grandma does on the weekend. But I seemed to win people over by pointing out that they will get old. If they remain in good health, they probably will have satisfying sexual lives. Gay marriage also turned out to be useful for teaching the median voter theorem. There is a lot of survey data showing that there is an increase in support (over 50% in many surveys) for gay marriage equality. Thus, the median voter theorem would predict that policy will follow, as it is nationally (though states with conservative voters, like Indiana, are trying to buck the trend).
Overall, I think it is a good experience to teach topics that are of immediate concern, such as income, or sex, or happiness. It means that people actually have some inherent interest and we can move to analysis. In terms of sex specifically, people seemed to be ok with explicit readings as long as they were presented in an academic format. Tomorrow, I will get into Laumann et al. 1994 and what professional sociologists should take away from that study.